Cocaine use up by a quarter in some UK cities, NCA warns after study of waste water

18 July 2023, 08:56

The UK is Europe's biggest cocaine market. NCA intelligence led to the seizure of 250 tonnes of class A drugs worldwide last year
The UK is Europe's biggest cocaine market. NCA intelligence led to the seizure of 250 tonnes of class A drugs worldwide last year. Picture: Alamy

By Asher McShane

An analysis of waste water carried out by 'Britain's FBI' suggests cocaine use in some areas of the UK is up by as much as 25%.

Nearly 120 tonnes of cocaine and 40 tonnes of heroin are consumed in the UK every year, and an analysis of waste water by the National Crime Agency (NCA) suggests cocaine use is increasing by 25% in some areas.

The NCA is now routinely carrying out wastewater examinations in cities including London, Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool to give it a clearer idea of the extent of drug use.

In one significant seizure of the drug in May this year, cocaine worth £200 million was intercepted by authorities after being smuggled into the UK in banana boxes, a court heard.

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The agency wants to stop the use of synthetic opioids like fentanyl getting a hold here as they have done in the US.

In a wide-ranging speech, the head of the National Crime Agency has warned that 'hostile states' are now deploying organised crime gangs to carry out illegal activity in the UK.

In May, cocaine worth £200 million was intercepted by authorities hidden in banana boxes
In May, cocaine worth £200 million was intercepted by authorities hidden in banana boxes. Picture: NCA

NCA director-general Graeme Biggar warned of "the emerging links between serious and organised crime and hostile states" in a speech outlining the agency's annual assessment of crime threats to Britain.

Speaking in Westminster on Monday, he said: "North Korea has for some time used cybercrime to steal funds and more recently cryptocurrency.

"The Russian state has long tolerated and occasionally tasked the cybercrime groups on its territory, and had links with its oligarchs and their enablers.

"And over the last year we have seen hostile states beginning to use organised crime groups - not always of the same nationality - as proxies.

"It is a development we and our colleagues in MI5 and CT (counter-terrorism) policing are watching closely."

Intelligence suggests that states including Russia, China, North Korea and Iran are paying criminals in the UK to target individuals here, including threats to life.

This is thought to be because it is harder for them to get their own operatives into the country since the Salisbury poisonings in 2018.

Mr Biggar said the biggest group of offenders in the UK is those who pose a sexual threat to children, estimated to be between 680,000 and 830,000 people - around 10 times the prison population.

He warned that the availability of abuse images online has a radicalising effect by normalising paedophiles' behaviour, and that viewing images, whether real or AI-generated, increases the risk of someone going on to abuse a child themselves.

There are around 59,000 people involved in serious organised crime in the UK, with around £12 billion generated by criminal activities each year, and around £100 billion of dirty cash from across the globe laundered through the UK.

He said key threats to the UK include:

- Criminals exploiting migrants travelling to the UK in small boats.

- Illegal drug use that fuels a raft of other crimes including violence, theft, use of guns and modern slavery.

- Online fraud, which accounts for more than 40% of all crime.

Mr Biggar said: "We assess that 75% of fraud is partially or fully committed from overseas. Generative AI is also being used to make frauds more believable, through the use of ever better deep fake videos and Chat GPT to write more compelling phishing emails."

The NCA's national strategic assessment suggests that more people could be drawn into crime as a result of the rise in the cost of living, for example being used as money mules.

This is where people accept payments into their own bank accounts and move them on in return for a small fee.

It is also thought that organised acquisitive crime, including high-value burglaries, gangs stealing cars, robberies and metal thefts, will increase due to the cost-of-living crisis.

Mr Biggar said developments in technology such as increased use of end-to-end encryption are making the agency's work harder.

Hyper-realistic child abuse images created using artificial intelligence are also difficult to identify as computer-generated.

He finished his speech by saying: "Law enforcement, including the NCA, needs to do more to be at the leading edge of new technology: this will require collective vision and sustained investment.

"And, secondly, we need more effective strategic partnership from technology companies.

"This is about responsible behaviour about designing public safety into their products alongside privacy, so that we all reap the benefits from technology, rather than suffering their consequences."